NYT editorial: Europe’s migration emergency: 800,000 Africans massing in Libya

Italy’s interior minister, Angelino Alfano, has given the European Union an ultimatum: Either step in to help Italy cope with the waves of African migrants who risk drowning in the Mediterranean to reach its shores or Italy will begin sending the people it rescues to neighboring European countries.

After the sinking of an overloaded boat last week — 206 people were rescued off the coast of Italy, 17 bodies were recovered, and an unknown number are missing — the European Commission responded. It said Italy should communicate what it expects. This is not an acceptable response.

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The commission knows very well what Italy expects. It wants Europe to compensate it for the cost of rescuing migrants. Italy also wants Europe to take ownership of its marine rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, which was set up after a boat sank off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa last October, with 350 lives lost. Since then, as two new reports on migration to Europe confirm, the worsening turmoil in sub-Saharan Africa and the dire situation in Syria have pushed thousands more to risk crossing the Mediterranean, more than 40,000 in 2013 alone.

Mare Nostrum has saved many lives — the Italian Navy says it recently rescued 4,362 people, including a newborn, in just five days. As the number of people attempting the perilous Mediterranean crossing has soared, so have the costs. Italy spends $13.1 million a month on sea patrols, and millions more to meet the basic needs of rescued migrants.

That cost is likely to grow dramatically since the conflicts across Africa and the Middle East show little sign of abating. A new United States military advisory board report cites desertification as a contributing factor, and warns that this and other destabilizing effects of climate change in the region are expected to increase.

Italy says that as many as 800,000 migrants, mainly from Africa, South Asia and Syria, are massing in Libya now with the intent of reaching Italy.  Libya’s interim interior minister, Salah Mazek, recently warned the European Union that Libya had had enough of being a way station for migrants heading to Europe, and that it was “Europe’s turn to pay.”

Libya and Italy are merely points along a larger migration route. They cannot — and should not have to — cope alone. European interior ministers need to pledge concerted action when they meet in Luxembourg in early June to discuss migration. And the United States, the European Union and its member states must work with African governments and the United Nations to address the causes and consequences of this desperate migration.

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